How to Buy a Netbook
If you're constantly running off to class, your portable has to be really light. You need something that you can take notes on all day long and use for assignments at home. And it shouldn't cut into your tight budget--living on mac and cheese is bad enough!
We're talking netbooks here, for bookworms who don't need a big, beefy machine. All you engineering students and future Photoshoppers, see our buying guide to desktop replacement laptops; you might require the same kind of muscle that gamers do.
The Intel Atom CPU, which powers most netbooks, is strong enough to run Windows XP. (Some foolhardy vendors have tried using Vista on Atom-powered netbooks, but those models run in slow motion.) These days, alternatives are popping up, namely the VIA Nano and the AMD Athlon Neo. AMD's product is capable of running Vista and is faster than conventional netbook chips, but it's still not nearly as speedy as what you find in ultraportables. Our test Athlon Neo machine earned a mark of 45 in WorldBench 6 running Vista (netbooks normally score around 36). But we are waiting to see how Intel's new low-cost, low-voltage Core 2 Solo CPU does in the upcoming HP Mini 133.
You won't find many netbooks sold with more than 1GB of RAM, but several have opened up a little, allowing you to jack up the memory on your own. The new Toshiba NB205 netbooks, for example, can go up to 2GB.
Graphics Board (aka GPU)
In a word: none. You get integrated graphics that are just barely passable, and may be adequate for basic games. Keep in mind, though, that the nVidia Ion platform (which marries an Atom CPU with the nVidia GeForce 9400M GPU) will be available as of mid-August in the Lenovo IdeaPad S12; it promises HD video and 3D gaming for under $500.
Screen Size and Native Resolution
We're starting to see screens approaching 12 inches. Usually, netbooks have a native resolution of 1024 by 600 pixels; if you use a program that defaults to 1024 by 768, plug your netbook into a monitor and reset the app's resolution. If you're concerned about the low resolution, look at Lenovo's IdeaPad S12 or HP's Pavilion dv2; both support a native resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels.
When netbooks first came out, their battery life was pathetic--2 hours, if you were lucky. Now, though, some can run a marathon. The Samsung N110 lasted a staggering 8 hours, 23 minutes in our tests. On average, expect a netbook to last 3.5 hours.
Keyboard and Pointing Device
The curse of these Lilliputian laptops is tiny touchpads with awkwardly placed mouse buttons. The tightly packed keys are difficult for adult hands to use, too, so be sure to try a netbook or two in person before you commit to purchasing anything.
What optical drive? If you need one, you can buy an external USB-connected drive for $20 online.
Netbooks come in at less than 3 pounds and are about as large as a hardcover book, the perfect size for chucking into a bag and running out the door with.
It's strictly the basics here. Usually you'll find three USB ports, a VGA-out jack, ethernet, an SD Card reader, a Webcam, and headphone and mic jacks. We're starting to see cellular carriers offering subsidized netbooks for sale, too. The promise of a $100 netbook with Wireless WAN access sounds good; but the category is only one generation old, and it's bound to improve again soon. Do you want to be stuck with your netbook until your contract runs out in two years? Didn't think so.
Our Netbook Picks
If you're on a tight budget, look at the Asus Eee PC 1000HE or Eee PC 1008HA. Both are stylish standouts that offer great battery life and good-size keyboards for around $400. I also recommend the $749 HP Pavilion dv2 often. Neither a true netbook nor a full notebook, it offers you a little more juice while you're on the go, plus an external optical drive and a discrete GPU to play games like Left 4 Dead.
Illustrations by Joe Ciardielo.